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William Branwhite Clarke (1798–1878)

by Ann Mozley

This article was published:

William Branwhite Clarke (1798-1878), by unknown engraver, 1878?

William Branwhite Clarke (1798-1878), by unknown engraver, 1878?

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an9351872

William Branwhite Clarke (1798-1878), geologist and Anglican clergyman, was born on 2 June 1798 at East Bergholt, Suffolk, England, the eldest child of William Clarke, schoolmaster, and his wife Sarah, née Branwhite. Brought up in Constable country, Clarke attended his father's school and later Dedham Grammar School. In 1817 he entered Jesus College, Cambridge (B.A., 1821; M.A., 1824). In June 1821 he was made deacon at Norwich Cathedral by Bishop Bathurst, and ordained priest in 1823. After curacies in Suffolk and Sussex he became curate at East Bergholt in 1824 and, five years later when his father died, succeeded him at the East Bergholt Free School. On 3 January 1832 at St Botolph's, Aldersgate, Clarke married Maria Moreton, daughter of Ebenezer and Ann Stather; of their four children, a son and two daughters were born in England and a daughter in New South Wales. In that year he became vicar of the new St Mary's Church at Longfleet, Dorsetshire.

Two influences at Cambridge shaped the direction of Clarke's intellectual life. He developed a lively taste for literature and the classics, and at the lectures of Rev. Adam Sedgwick, Woodwardian professor of geology, was introduced to a subject then casting off the framework of theology and emerging as a factual and inductive science. As a curate poetry engrossed him and in verse Clarke published Pompeii (1819), Carmen Exequiale (1821), The River Derwent (1822), Recollections of a Visit to Mont Blanc (1828) and Lays of Leisure (1829). In 1824 he was one of the four founders and editors of the short-lived Cambridge Quarterly Review and Academical Register; he helped to compile a hymn-book and regularly contributed to literary magazines but science soon gained the upper hand. He became a fellow of the Geological Society of London in 1826 and by 1832 had made several excursions to the Continent. His papers on meteoric phenomena and geology and notes on zoology in the Magazine of Natural History in the 1830s attest the scope of his work and he contributed several papers to the Proceedings of the Geological Society. He cultivated the leaders of geological science and began the correspondence with Sedgwick and Sir Roderick Murchison that later stimulated and encouraged his lonely researches in New South Wales.

Without ecclesiastical or aristocratic connexions to aid him, Clarke's chances of church preferment were small, and in December 1838, near penury and suffering from rheumatic fever, he accepted the nomination of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to a chaplaincy in New South Wales. He arrived at Sydney with his family in May 1839 and was assigned to St Peter's, Campbelltown. But within a week Bishop William Grant Broughton changed his appointment to the headmastership of The King's School, Parramatta, with charge of the near-by parishes of Castle Hill and Dural. In December 1840 he resigned as headmaster because of his health, but continued to minister at Dural and Castle Hill until November 1844. He became rector of Campbelltown and in August 1846 moved to St Thomas's Church, North Sydney, and remained as its first pastor until his retirement in 1871. Prominent though never a leader in the Church in Sydney, Clarke was evangelical and opposed to Tractarianism but he supported Broughton's educational policy and his struggle against the assumptions of Rome.

Clarke left his mark in New South Wales as a geologist rather than as a churchman. In his spare time he moved out from Sydney and Parramatta in a widening arc and collected rocks and fossils, sending many to Sedgwick and publishing his observations in British scientific journals and the Tasmanian Journal of Natural Science. Clarke early predicted the colony's mineral wealth. In 1841, chipping the quartziferous slates near Hartley in the Blue Mountains, he discovered particles of gold and later added evidence from Bathurst to the Liverpool Range that the country would be found 'abundantly rich in gold'. In April 1844 he told Governor Sir George Gipps of his finds and later claimed that the governor directed him to 'Put it away, Mr. Clarke, or we shall all have our throats cut'; it has been argued that this delayed the development of the colony's mineral wealth, but apathy more than fear hindered mineralogical exploration. Clarke did not put his gold away, though he observed a public silence on the subject until Gipps died. He pressed for an official survey of New South Wales and in 1847 became active in drawing public attention to the geological phenomenon of gold.

When Edward Hargraves discovered a goldfield at Ophir in 1851 Clarke acted as the government's scientific adviser and served as a geological surveyor from September 1851 to July 1853, carrying church ministrations to the diggings and to other outlying parts. Travelling on foot and horseback with two servants, he made a reconnaissance from Marulan southwards across the Alps to Omeo; east to Twofold Bay and north from the Hunter River to Brisbane and the Darling Downs. In his twenty-eight reports, published as parliamentary papers in New South Wales and Britain, he outlined the physical and stratigraphical structure of the country he had seen and its metalliferous resources. In 1851 he published Plain Statements and Practical Hints Respecting the Discovery and Working of Gold in Australia and in 1860 Researches in the Southern Gold Fields of New South Wales.

Scientific recognition followed Clarke's work on gold. In 1856 at the Tasmanian government's invitation he reported on the Fingal goldfield and on the auriferous character of the basin at South Esk, but in 1858 he refused appointment as geological surveyor of Tasmania. Clarke claimed to be the scientific discoverer of Australian gold, a title contested by John Lhotsky, Strzelecki, Hargraves and by Sir Roderick Murchison who published in 1844 a comparison between the Australian 'Cordillera' and the goldbearing Ural chain. In 1861, however, the government of New South Wales honoured Clarke's claim and awarded him a grant of £3000. His part in the discovery and investigation of Australia's gold resources was also recognized by the Royal Society of London who elected him a fellow in June 1876.

Clarke's most important contribution to Australian geology was his work on the age of the coal deposits of New South Wales, a subject which drew him into bitter and protracted controversy with Professor Frederick McCoy. Clarke believed that the Hunter River and Illawarra coalfields were Palaeozoic and much older than those of Europe. He also maintained that the fossiliferous sandstone beneath the coal, the coal itself and plant fossils in the beds above represented one great unbroken series and belonged to the same geological age, either Carboniferous or Devonian. In contrast McCoy, who examined the specimens from Newcastle and the Illawarra that Clarke had sent to Sedgwick at Cambridge, always insisted that a vast geological time separated the true Carboniferous marine deposits below the coal, the coal seams and the beds of plant fossils, the last of which he referred to the true 'Oolitic' (Jurassic) system of Europe. The debate was pursued with asperity in Transactions of the Royal Society of Victoria for thirty years. Clarke's careful and persistent field-work prevailed, but the acceptance of his findings was delayed by McCoy's reliance on the palaeontological evidence of the fossils against the stratigraphy of the field. Clarke published a detailed classification of the coal measures in the first edition of his Remarks on the Sedimentary Formations of New South Wales in 1867. He had earlier named and described the Hawkesbury and Wianamatta series which he included originally among the Palaeozoic rocks, but in his fourth edition of Remarks in 1878 he assigned them correctly to the Mesozoic. Clarke was awarded the Murchison medal of the Geological Society of London in 1877 for his work on the coal measures of New South Wales.

For almost forty years Clarke was prominent in the colony's scientific life. He retained his early interest in meteorology and in 1839-57 kept records of wind and weather at his home at Parramatta and later on the North Shore, and had weather stations in his parishes of Dural, Castle Hill and Campbelltown. In 1842 he contributed twenty articles on meteorology to the Sydney Morning Herald and encouraged others to assist in a co-ordinated system of weather observation. In a colony where science was considered a private matter and received scant government aid, Clarke was an ardent publicist for science, contributing countless editorials, articles, reviews and letters to the Sydney press and working to pierce 'the intellectual barrenness of New South Wales'. In 1841-43 he was secretary and curator of the Australian Museum and trustee in 1853-73. Pressure of duties led him to decline a seat on the first senate of the University of Sydney in 1850 and a professorship in geology and mineralogy in 1856, although he was elected a fellow of St Paul's College in 1853. Clarke was a founder of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1867 and its vice-president until 1876; its Clarke medal, struck as Australia's first scientific honour in 1878, commemorates his work. Still busy with his geological work, he died in Sydney on 16 June 1878 and was buried in the North Sydney cemetery. He was survived by one son and two married daughters, and left an estate valued at £17,000.

Small and indefatigable with a flowing patriarchal beard in later years, Clarke was a mixture of scholar, churchman, practical geologist and publicist. To his parishioners he was a warm-hearted and devoted friend, but in scientific affairs he was a tenacious and often sharp controversialist. He was a born fighter. 'Considering you are a clergyman', Roderick Murchison wrote, 'you are very bellicose'. Above all he was a pioneer. 'When geology was yet unknown and had its way to make', an obituarist claimed, 'who could estimate the immense gain to our young Colony to have a man like Clarke at our disposal … He excited an interest in the subject; he never ceased to bring the main labour of his life prominently before the public … He was a centre around which all facts and discoveries were sure to group themselves'. Working for the most part unaided and at his own expense, Clarke made a geological survey in New South Wales, amassing and exhibiting his rocks and fossils, conducting a huge correspondence with scientists and prospectors and acting as scientific mentor to newly-recruited geological surveyors in other colonies until the Department of Mines was established in 1873. In addition to his reports and books, Clarke published some eighty scientific papers, while his geological maps formed the basis of the first geological sketch map of New South Wales, issued by the Department of Mines in 1880. His pioneering on the stratigraphy of New South Wales laid the foundations on which much later work has been based. Clarke's valuable collection of Australian fossils and minerals, acquired by the government on his death, were destroyed with his scientific library in the Garden Palace fire in 1882.

A portrait of Clarke by Giulio Anivitti, commissioned by the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1875, is in the society's rooms, and a memorial window at St Thomas's Church bears an incorrect date of death.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Tate, ‘A Century of Geological Progress’, Report of the Meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, 1893, pp 1-69
  • J. Jervis, ‘Rev. W. B. Clarke’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 30, part 6, 1944, pp 345-458
  • G. Blainey, ‘Gold and Governors’, Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, vol 9, no 36, May 1961, pp 337-50
  • A. Mozley, ‘James Dwight Dana in New South Wales, 1839-1840’, Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, vol 97, part 6A, 1964, pp 185-91
  • A. Mozley, ‘The Foundations of the Geological Survey of New South Wales’, Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, vol 98, part 2, 1965, pp 91-100
  • A. Mozley, ‘Richard Daintree: First Government Geologist of Northern Queensland’, Queensland Heritage, vol 1, no 2, May 1965, pp 11-16
  • Select Committee on Claims of Rev. W. B. Clarke, Report, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1861, 2, 1153
  • William Branwhite papers (State Library of New South Wales and University of Sydney Library).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ann Mozley, 'Clarke, William Branwhite (1798–1878)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

William Branwhite Clarke (1798-1878), by unknown engraver, 1878?

William Branwhite Clarke (1798-1878), by unknown engraver, 1878?

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an9351872

Life Summary [details]


2 June, 1798
East Bergholt, Suffolk, England


16 June, 1878 (aged 80)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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